Some avocations cry out more than others for the helping hand of a mentor. I’ve decided the CIO job is one of them. Maybe it’s because the chief information officer is a relatively new entrant into the realm of bosses. Or maybe it’s because the CIO job is so hard, demanding that right- and left-brain hemispheres be in top working order. My reporting a few years back on women in IT who became CIOs showed me what a difference mentors (literally mentors, in their cases) made in building their IT management careers, from encouraging these women to take on technically difficult projects to going to bat for them on equal pay.
At a recent lunchtime seminar titled “The Path to CIO”, two seasoned CIOs talked about the influence of mentors on their careers. For Anthony Sirabella, CTO at the Boston-based Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo investment management firm, the mentor was a national sales executive. At one point, this man needed some data quickly. Instead of using COBOL, Sirabella figured out another way to extract the data ASAP.
“He saw some value,” Sirabella recalled, and soon the sales executive was taking the young technocrat to business meetings. As Sirabella got closer to the inner sanctum of meetings, the sales exec pulled him aside and said, “Tony, stop speaking like a technologist.” Common advice for CIOs, but Sirabella was not a CIO then and took the advice to heart. “Sometimes when you are hearing things from the business folks … you have to put it in your pocket and run with it,” he recalled.” For him, the comment marked the beginning of a deep education in financial services. Every time he didn’t understand something — an option spread, a particular type of proprietary trading — he asked the sales guy to teach him. Along the way, he studied for the Series 7 Exam, the financial services industry’s toughest certification test. “I never took it, but I got to understand what they were talking about,” Sirabella said.
Daniel Sheehan, CIO of Dunkin’ Brands, whose brands include Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, met his mentor, Marriott International CIO Carl Wilson, back in the mid-1990s during a problematic SAP implementation at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta. At the time, Wilson was CIO and Sheehan was an IT manager on the SAP project. The stress they both felt working in a business where the “business didn’t want to change,” cemented the bond between them. Indeed, the project was called off, but thanks to Wilson, Sheehan landed on his feet, working on a $1.7 billion global SAP rollout for Coca-Cola. “He helped put me with the Coke folks, and six weeks later he left Georgia-Pacific,” Sheehan recounted. “If I have something I want to run by him, he is always there.” (Sheehan also learned a big lesson about change management, as detailed in today’s story on SearchCIO.)
Of course, both Sirabella and Sheehan would not have had the benefit of mentors had they not shown some value, as Sirabella put it. Mentors take on manatees (as 30 Rock character Tracy Jordan calls them) when they see that the time investment leads to a lasting, useful relationship. So, aspiring CIOs in need of mentors should be ready to bring something to the table.